Remote recording - an opportunity or a nightmare?
Recording audiobooks is very different from doing any other kind of voiceover or voice acting work. Audiobook narration is a challenge from a creative point of view, bringing an author’s vision to life, creating not only a compelling narrative voice, but also an array of unique and believable characters – it also requires stamina, and the ability to make choices and to self-direct. If you’re recording remotely, you also need to have some basic technical knowledge of how sound works in your recording space and a thorough understanding of your own recording set-up and software.
Normally in the UK, only a comparatively small number of audiobooks are recorded remotely, but at the current time, as social isolation is the norm and recording studios are forced to close due to Corona Virus, the demand for narrators who can deliver high quality remote audiobook recordings is unprecedented.
Remote recording technical requirements.
Production houses and publishers rightly demand high technical as well as performance standards – and that means that you – and your personal studio must be able to meet their demands consistently, day in and day out. Each publisher and producer will have their own tech specs which they will share with the narrators they hire, and will normally request a raw studio sample for evaluation by their audio engineers. They will only consider adding you to their list of narrators if you can demonstrate that you're able to match their technical requirements as well as being able to deliver first class storytelling and character creation. They will usually also ask for details of the equipment and software you use.
What constitutes a ‘home studio’?
Not all 'home studios' are equal - and publishers and producers have exacting standards to maintain. Most narrators who record remotely for mainstream publishers and production houses have made a significant financial investment in order to meet these standards.
No matter for whom you’re recording, the minimum requirement is that you have a quiet, acoustically treated recording space that has some isolation from external noise (from outside the house) and noise from inside the house as well. It needs to be a space in which you can work comfortably for many hours at a time. Get the space right and you will save you (and your editor) hours of work in trying to remove noise and interference.
Many full time narrators have created or purchased an 'isolation booth' or have found a way to isolate their recording space from the rest of their home (basements work very well as a space to build your booth or recording space. Isolation booths are expensive ... and heavy: some require a surveyor’s report if you’re installing them above ground floor level or on anything other than a solid floor; and all isolation booths require the installation of acoustic treatment within - how much will vary depending on the make and model.
Most of us have to consider cost – and until you know you can land the work, then I don’t advise you to rush out and spend thousands of pounds on an isolation booth. Many successful narrators work in home built studios installed in cupboards under the stairs, in attic rooms or box rooms, or even in the corner of a spare bedroom. I know of many narrators successfully narrating in such spaces – what they have done is learned about the way that sound works within their space works, and investing in good acoustic treatment – whether that be acoustic foam, insulation panels, home built bass traps or draped duvets.
The very minimum quality requirement, measured when recording at a level where, at conversational volume, the raw vocal recording, without any normalizing, levelling or compression, falls between -20dB and -6dB across a whole chapter – and that this is achieved without the noise floor being higher than -60dB. This is generally accepted as the minimum requirement, but some production houses will not accept a noise floor above -65dB.
A common mistake is that folk lower their input levels in order to achieve a sufficiently low noise floor, but of course, this also lowers the level of the voice. When the overall audio level is raised to meet audiobook requirements in post-production, then the noise floor is also raised.
The sky is the limit when it comes to buying for a home studio. You can spend literally thousands of pounds – but remember, buying a Steinway Grand doesn't turn you into a concert pianist – any more than buying a Neumann mic will turn you into a great narrator!
If your recording environment is noisy or has a lot of echo or low frequency reverberation, no matter what microphone and interface you invest in, you will run into problems.
Get the space right first!
Acoustic foam, moving blankets, duvets and even soft furnishings (curtains rather than blinds, carpet rather than bare floors) can help to reduce low frequency rumble and echo.
Your equipment and software need to be capable of producing professional sound; and I also advise people not to attempt to record audiobooks using Audacity which I find clunky and unresponsive – there are much better options, including the free software Ocenaudio or the free version of Studio One, both of which have native punch and roll recording. There are if course other recording software options: Studio One Artist from PreSonus, Sound Forge Pro (PC only), Adobe Audition, Pro Tools, Reaper ... and no doubt many more that I have never tried. (I use Studio One Artist which was a steep learning curve, but well worth the effort).
Once you have your recording space and software set up, then you need to look at equipment.
These are the basics that you’ll need.
You have to be really well organised with the naming and saving of your audio files. In case anything needs to be unravelled or undone, you should save each file clearly identified at every stage, so will always have multiple copies of each file and need to be able to identify each one quickly and accurately. In addition, you should also back up all your files by saving to either cloud storage or a secondary hard drive (or both) at the end of every session.
Once you get the go ahead and start recording, you’re on your own – though occasionally a studio will connect with you and will direct remotely, perhaps only for the first couple of chapters, but occasionally for the whole book! This is unusual though – but ‘flying solo’ is not nearly as frightening as it sounds.
When you’re working remotely, you don’t have to complete four finished hours in a studio day as you do in a mainstream studio; you can generally set your own schedule and work flexibly, providing you can still meet any deadlines. Apart from the fact that you’re pressing the ‘record’ button yourself, the actual process of creating the characters, choosing voices, telling the story, is not significantly different from how it works in a mainstream studio – other than the fact that you’re working without anyone on the other side of the glass to proof your recording as you go. This means that you will have to do corrections and pick-ups after the audio has been proofed; but particularly if you have the right software and can master punch and roll (rock and roll as it is also known in the UK) any errors or flubs that you spot will be over recorded just as they are in a mainstream studio – though there are likely to be some things that slip through and will have to be corrected later.
Proofing and editing
When working remotely for a publisher or production house, proofing and editing are usually handled by them ‘in house’. During the current situation, studios are still operating (albeit remotely) so some may even connect with the narrator and do remote direction and recording. Even when you’re self-directing though, unless you’re recording an indie publisher, or for ACX, Findaway, Spoken Realms, Authors Republic or similar, when you’ll be responsible for finding your own proofer and editor to work with, is that the studio or publisher who hires you will proof your audio against the text, send you a correction list, you then record the corrections and return to the producer, who will edit in the corrections, fine edit and master the audiobook ready for publication. You’re only responsible for research and preparation, recording the audio and any corrections identified by the proofer and sent to you by the company you’re working for. You will not normally be asked to do anything other than a ‘first pass edit’ – where you manually remove any repeats or retakes – largely unnecessary if your using punch recording. If you are asked to do more, you should quote accordingly and add to your standard PFH rate to take this extra work into account.
Sorting out Mistakes.
Everything so far has been about recording. We now get to the point where we begin to think about how to deal with flubs and errors, which will always happen no matter how good a narrator you are.
When recording in a mainstream studio, whoever is on the other side of the glass, will stop you whenever you make an error and will stop the recording. You’ll then hear the previous five seconds or so through your headphones and will pick up the read at the point before you made the error and recording will continue. With the right software, you can do exactly the same thing in your own studio, using punch recording - known widely as punch and roll, but also as rock and roll in the UK.
Of course when you’re working solo, unless you spot a mistake as you’re recording, it won’t be noticed until the audio is proofed after the entire book is recorded. If this is the case, the narrator is sent a list of corrections which they record into a separate audio file, using identical settings and matching against their original recording, which they then return to their editor to be editing into the original recording so that all errors are replaced. You will not normally be asked to edit in your corrections yourself - you should just supply a single file with all the pickups and corrections recorded to seamlessly match the original - though of course, without the error.
The capability for Punch and Roll recording is not an option in all recording software and though there are narrators who manage well enough without it, the ability to punch and roll will ultimately save you an enormous amount of and once you get to grips with it.
A final thought.
Until we were hit with Covid 19 and the necessity for everyone to work ‘from home’ the vast majority of UK productions were recorded in professional recording studios. Will we return to that situation post-pandemic? Who knows!
To my mind – the current situation presents us all with a wonderful opportunity,
If every narrator working from their personal recording studio maintains the highest possible production standards in their recordings, both technically and artistically, then the current horrible situation we're all in, could potentially open up many more opportunities to narrators, even when mainstream studios are back up and running. Just think of all those back catalogues! This situation, if we handle it right, will allow publishers and producers, authors, and indie publishers to create more audiobooks - with high quality narration from live voices rather than synthesised voices, which is something I think we all fear.
But we have to keep the standards high. If audiobook listeners are inundated with poorly recorded audiobooks, we have lost a real opportunity - and poor quality audio will increase the speed with which AI audiobooks are developed.
Collectively we have the opportunity to make a fantastic first impression on the audiobook publishing world.
Let's make sure we make it count!
If you’ve never done audiobook recording then there are a lot of resources available and numerous social groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. The audiobook community is generally very generous – and there are lots of people out there who are willing to help and give advice, as well as organisations with advice about home studios, remote recording – with some information that Is relevant to audiobook narration specifically.
As a starting point, I recommend you visit Karen Commins’ excellent website: The Narrators Roadmap.
Here I also recommend you read Paul Strikwerda’s excellent Nethervoice Blogs – many of which are VO related, but all of which are relevant to running your own business, which is what we are all doing.
Here are some of the organisations that have relevant information about audiobooks
Voiceover Kickstart: http://www.voiceoverkickstart.com
Gravy For the Brain: http://www.gravyforthebrain.com
If you’re interested in joining audiobook community online, there are numerous Facebook and LinkedIn groups. The Audiobook Creatives Alliance, is open to all narrators, proofers, editors and producers of audiobooks. www.audiobookcreativesalliance,org
Photo Credit: Paul Haynes
I've gleaned quite a lot of knowledge over the years, knowledge that might be of interest to others, especially authors, actors and voice actors. Because I read so much, for pleasure and professionally, I also occasionally write reviews of what I read - so they're here too.
My opinions are mine and my views are my own!